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5 die in Moroccan protests

Despite some violence, King Mohammed VI permits nation-wide demonstrations for reform.

Morocco protests king mohammed 2011 02 21Enlarge
A woman prays as thousands of Moroccans demonstrate against the regime led by King Mohammed VI on Feb. 20, 2011 in Rabat, Morocco. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

RABAT, Morocco – Five people died in anti-government protests in Morocco and many buildings were damaged, but the nation-wide marches were not met with harsh repression from King Mohammed VI’s government.

Under a cold drizzle, thousands of Moroccans gathered Sunday in the main cities of the kingdom to demonstrate in favor of political reform. Many of the demonstrators carried out angry acts of vandalism and five people burned to death when a bank was set on fire in the northern city of Al Hoceima. In all 128 people, including 115 member of the security forces, were injured and 33 public buildings, 24 banks, 50 shops and private buildings and 66 vehicles were burned or damaged, according to the Interior Ministry.

The marches were organized by human rights activists, journalists, union members and representatives of political parties who united for the “February 20 Youth” movement which they started on Facebook to denounce a government they consider elitist and corrupt.

“I have an agenda: Equality means justice. Democracy equals a new constitution,” stated one banner. Another said: “The king should reign not rule.”

Democracy and Freedom, the group that initiated the march is asking for a rehaul of the constitution to reduce the power of the monarch and separate the powers between the king and an elected parliament.

The leader of the group, Oussama El Khlifi, an unemployed computer technician, insists that the target is not the monarch but a broken system. He expressed the urgency to have "real government, a real parliament and real justice."

Inspired by the massive protests in Tunisia and Egypt that toppled their leaders, the demonstrators — who did not express anger against the king — hope that their efforts will push the country in a positive direction. Many waved Egyptian and Tunisian flags, while others protested specific complaints of Morocco: injustice, inequality in education, health, unemployment, abuse of power, corruption, nepotism and police brutality.

“I protest against the censorship, against social apartheid: foreign schools and private clinics for the privileged, dilapidated schools dumps and hospices for the poor,” said Khadija. “I march against illiteracy. I realize that walking is not enough but I am ready for the other steps.”

Morocco’s hereditary monarchy has existed for centuries. King Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father in 1999, is seen as a reformer in comparison to his father's autocratic rule of the country. Legally, Morocco is an absolute monarchy with centralized powers held by the king.

“People want their politicians to be held accountable and they want to be able to choose their representatives,” said Prince Moulay Hicham Alaoui, a cousin of the king of Morocco who often speaks out against totalitarianism, in a televised interview on France 24. “Morocco is not an exception. We have assets: tolerance, a diverse political sphere, and a center, [which is] the monarchy, legitimate and culturally anchored.”

Moulay Hicham, a political science researcher at Stanford University, expressed support for the march, saying that the only way the monarchy will survive longterm is if it becomes constitutional.

“Morocco has not yet been reached, but make no mistake: Nearly all the authoritarian systems will be affected by the protest wave,” Moulay Hicham said in an interview with the daily Spanish paper El Pais.